FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has announced that his office will vote on an official proposal for net neutrality on February 26th. "We're going to circulate it to the commissioners on February 5th and vote on it February 26th," Wheeler told CEA President Gary Shapiro in a public interview at CES. Wheeler did not specifically say whether the commission was selecting a hybrid approach or reclassification of broadband as a utility, but he did speak highly of Title II's regulatory abilities. In November, President Obama urged the FCC to classify internet traffic under Title II, although Wheeler has declined to explicitly endorse the proposal.
"How do you make sure that that pathway stays open?"
"I was standing at one of the [CES] booths ... there was an ethernet port in their router that has to go into the router of the ISP, who may offer — and in this case was offering — a competitive service," Wheeler said. "How do you make sure that that pathway stays open ... and make sure that the ISP has an opportunity to get a fair return on investment?"
In response to questions from Shapiro about Title II, Wheeler spoke about the need to find a balance between the allowance for innovation and then need to incentivize the ISPs' continued investment in broadband. He also continued to suggest that the commission isn't about to hand the ISPs everything that they want. "When the president came out ... there was an effort made to say Wheeler and the president are pulling in opposite directions on this," Wheeler said. "But that wasn't exactly the reality because we're both pulling in the same directions, which is no blocking, no throttling of applications, and transparency about how we get there." Wheeler spoke about the success of regulating the wireless industry under Title II-style regulations but removing some of the harsher restrictions — much like what Obama proposed.
At the same time, Wheeler continued to refer to his prior remarks that, in some instance, prioritization may be appropriate. Previously, the commission has said that something like an emergency health alert may deserve prioritization. "There are instances where priority makes a whole heck of a lot of sense," Wheeler said. However, he sees the ability to buy into prioritization as a different story. Wheeler by no means drew the line for what is and isn't appropriate, but the commission's proposal next month will have to — even if that's saying no prioritization, period.
The FCC has said over the past few months that it has been exploring a hybrid approach to protecting net neutrality. It's believed that this approach would use strict, utility-like Title II regulation on the parts of the internet that connect content providers, but the approach wouldn't apply that regulation to the final stretch of the internet that connects to consumers' homes. There, a lighter regulation would be used that would still allow prioritized fast lanes to be sold.
The FCC initially began exploring that approach at the suggestion of the court that struck down its last net neutrality rules. If it chooses to go in this direction, it would mean that the FCC will have to decide when it is "commercially reasonable" to allow a fast lane. Critics of the plan would argue that there really is no point at which it is reasonable, while ISPs would love to have that level of flexibility to charge consumers more for services. It's not yet clear exactly where the commission comes down, but we should find out soon.
"You'll notice that I have not addressed any of the specifics," Wheeler said, trying to temper his remarks. "You have to wait until February to see the specifics."
Update January 7th, 4:21PM PT: this story has been updated to emphasize that Wheeler's later remarks spoke quite favorably of Title II, rather than suggesting that the commission is still interested in a hybrid approach.